When World of Tanks debuted as a PC game a few years back, it seemed like it would be the kind of ultra-niche hardcore simulation that appealed primarily to die-hards with specialized controllers – and loads of time to spend mastering its nuances. But there was an unexpected twist: It was free to download and play, which was still a relatively new concept, particularly in the hardcore PC space.
Instead of courting a small but vocal fan base, it exploded in popularity due to its accessible business model and game design, making it possible to play a few rounds and have fun without feeling overwhelmed or outgunned – or dig in and really savor the depth of its strategic action. Early this year, developer Wargaming reported having more than 75 million registered users on PC alone, with an Xbox 360 version launching in February to expand its reach further.
In late June, Wargaming began targeting a much different audience with the iOS launch of World of Tanks Blitz, a mobile and tablet experience that's streamlined and rebuilt for touch devices, yet maintains so much of what makes the game so satisfying on other platforms. I dug into the iOS version and spoke with mobile producer Rob Carroll to find out what makes this pint-sized rendition tick.
Tanks to go
Successfully adapting World of Tanks to mobile devices meant scaling back its ambitions without diminishing the fun. Impressive as it is to download a free PC game and quickly hop into intense 15-on-15 tank showdowns, that's a bit much for smartphones and tablets to reliably handle without lag issues. So Blitz instead caps each skirmish at seven players per team, and Wargaming trimmed down the maps accordingly to prevent tank operators from wandering for long without conflict.
Doing so also results in quicker battles, lasting just seven minutes apiece or less, and there's always competition – I've never waited more than a few seconds to have a full match start up. Blitz does sacrifice a bit of strategy with the scale, losing the artillery class of tanks (which used a specialized interface on other platforms), but it remains very entertaining as a swifter and slightly more action-oriented affair.
Losing the keyboard and mouse (or controller) represented a real challenge for the Blitz team, however, as they strived to allow players precise control with a touch interface. Luckily, even the fastest tanks aren't exactly speed demons, which gave World of Tanks a better shot of translating to touch than other hardcore types of games, such as first-person shooters.
"It's far more important to know the landscape, [as well as] the flaws and strengths of both your vehicle and the vehicles of your adversaries," says Rob, comparing World of Tanks to other real-time action games. "In this environment, reflexes still matter but are not critical."
Redesigning controls for mobile
Wargaming tried several control approaches – including one that utilized the iOS device's gyroscope – but ultimately settled on using a virtual joystick for movement, with indicated zones easily showing how you can rotate your tank in the heat of action. Auto-aim and auto-zoom assists help keep things streamlined and snappy (an impending update with further enhance auto-aim and allow on-the-fly toggling of the feature), and the whole approach proves easy to pick up and understand, not to mention highly effective in combat.
"We built Blitz as a true mobile game, not a port of the PC version. It didn't make sense to try and retrofit our existing controls; the game wouldn't have felt right," explains Rob. "We needed to build this game as a full, standalone mobile title, and the design of the controls reflects that."
Entertaining, quick-hit online shootouts form the appealing core of World of Tanks Blitz, but many free-to-play games have been utterly destroyed by poorly balanced economies that push players to spend or perish. Luckily, that's never been a big problem for World of Tanks on any platform, and the sensation carries over to Blitz. It's entirely possible to play consistently and successfully without spending a cent, although you'll be using the same handful of tanks for longer stretches of time.
As with a free-to-play gem like Real Racing 3, the real benefit of spending money is variety, as you'll be able to more quickly access different and more advanced tanks. Like most freemium games, there are multiple currency systems at play here, and the menus in Blitz can be rather dense and confusing – but continued play reaps enough progress that smart, patient players that don't charge headlong into every skirmish can be competitive from the start.
Still, that sprawling map of unlockable tanks can sure be tempting – I certainly understand the urge to leapfrog the slow, steady pace of accruing experience and credits to access some of the more advanced content early. World of Tanks Blitz is the rare free-to-play game that's so giving that you don't feel goaded or pushed into spending – and so entertaining that you don't feel bad when you ultimately pop in a few bucks to boost your progression rate with a premium account upgrade.
It's showing in the numbers: More than 5.3 million players downloaded Blitz in its first month-plus of availability, with 46.5 million play sessions logged between them, and the average player is spending about an hour per day with the game. Once it becomes available for Android devices, Blitz will support cross-platform multiplayer between iOS and Android, opening up the floodgates on the total player population.
While there's plenty of content for iOS players to unlock now, there will be even more available by the time Android players get to dig in. "Every month, we have new tanks, new maps, and new content coming out," asserts Rob. "Our team is working on making sure that we have a constant flow of events for the players to interact and compete in. World of Tanks PC has been around for years, and we fully plan to have that same level of support for Blitz."